Archive for June, 2007

The Musts and Myths of Organic and Locally Grown

Interesting article. While I don’t agree with all of it’s positions, it think it is worth mentioning here.

“So you’ve been known to occasionally spend extra on organic milk, mosey over to the free-range meat section, and make an effort to support your local farms by buying berries from a roadside fruit stand. Still, I’m betting the farm that if you’re confused about when to go local, when you should go organic, and when it’s all just baloney, you’re not alone.

I reached out to two experts in the field for some solid answers. Joy Bauer, nutritionist extraordinaire, breaks down the musts and myths of organic and local, while Ryan Hardy, the fresh-market-obsessed chef at The Montagna in Aspen, provides five easy ways to include the best of both into our diets. I hope this helps you figure out the best ways to bring farm-fresh food closer to your home.”

Follow the link to read the full article.

The Meal Blogger

Super Suppers is neat twist on homemade meal

From the Macon Telegraph

The thing that caught my eye was this

“Another stroke of genius is the monthly preview. The one I just attended was sold out. For $5 per person, you get to try out the items that are available that month for assemblage. We were treated to Asian chicken and veggie wraps, Baja burritos, baked cheesy ham and potatoes, chicken and pesto braided bread (very fun to make), orange tarragon-glazed chicken with herbed noodles, and rosemary balsamic London broil, among others. By attending the preview, we got a special deal that knocked another $15 off the total price.”

So now the store are charging people to come in and sample the meals. I have to say I hadn’t noticed this happening before. We’ll I guess it beats just giving the food away.

The Meal Blogger


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Cooking, Henry Ford-style

Cooking, Henry Ford-style

From Financial Times

“Like most Americans, I was brought up thinking of food as fuel: something that should be prepared and consumed as quickly as possible – an unfortunate distraction from the hard work of living.

Now I demand much more of my meals – but I have even less time to cook them. As a single parent, part-time commuter and full-time wage slave, my dinner options on the average workday are limited: we can have leftovers or we can have cereal. Every weekend, I cook up a big pot of something that keeps well (curry, or tuna-noodle casserole) and we eat that as long as we can stand it. By Friday, Cheerios and red wine sounds more appealing.”

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Much Ado About Nothing (Part II)

In continuing my rant on the meal assembly industry I will say my comments so far have been mainly directed at the 3 major players in the business. The cookie cutter stores with the Starbucks mentality that having a location on every street corner is a way to increase your brand visibility.

But as we step back for a moment and look at the Independent stores, do we see a difference? At first glance I would have to say no. Same concept, same way to order, same setup, same style of menu, same, same, same. I can’t say this is true for every meal assembly store out there, because I haven’t seen them all. But the few I have seen seem to all follow the same pattern. A dozen or so menu items, some sort of side dish, etc, etc, etc.

So the question still remains, knowing nothing of any meal assembly store, what makes one different from the other? Really the only factor you can use is the food. And not some hype about how “Our customers say our food is the best”, but actually going in and trying it. But, going to half a dozen different places, buying 6 meals and hoping you like them is a pretty big gamble. And if by chance your first two outings don’t meet with your satisfaction, I venture to say the deal is off and you’ll never go back into a place like that again.

If anything, I think the Independent stores have the upper hand here. They can adapt more quickly to the market than a nationwide franchise. They aren’t stifled by the idea of what is available on the East coast must be available on the West coast. They can pick and choose vendor to satisfy a need or a niche. However, I really don’t see them doing that. They seem to plod along in the same food steps as the big chains, trying show the merit of assembling meals ahead of time, convincing people it’s a good thing to do and trying to be just like the “big” stores.

Dare I say the Independent stores should go against the grain and show their individuality. They should be bold and state they’re different, and not just with the cliché notion of fresher food, better customer service, more convenient design. This will just be seen as marketing hype. Something more substantial and tangible such as:

  • The use of organic meats and produce.
  • Use of local growers and markets. The food is grown and sold here.
  • Seasonal and local menu items. Something more than a Thanksgiving or Christmas dish.
  • A soup to nuts approach. Here is the main entrée, here are the side items, here is a desert, and a salad to go with it. We even have the right wine pairing if you’re interested.
  • Experimental dishes created by the local culinary school. May not be available in all places, but in my opinion could certainly build some great relationships.
  • Or even a meal assembly place that specializes in a certain style food.

Something, anything to show some originality!

My point is this; all the meal assembly places look and act the same. If someone says, “Boy, I would love a really good steak”, choices will be thrown out on where to go. Or, “I’m in the mood for some authentic Mexican food”, you will get an answer. People will throw out, “Go here and try this! It’s fantastic!” “Or this place has the best…”

You can’t say people are saying that about the meal assembly industry. There might be some favorites people point out, but very rarely will someone say “You have to go here!” I’m sure it happens, but not to the same degree or with the same enthusiasm.

For example, when discussing the crème de la crème of steak places a name jumps to mind. For the best seafood, another name jumps to mind. For this industry that doesn’t happen. There isn’t a brand that has risen above the rest in quality, offerings, etc.

No one has defined themselves. Sure, one store claims to be the originator, another store the innovator and another the leader. But there is no pinnacle, no “King of the hill” as it were. Every store does the same thing that customers seem to be losing interest. Meal assembly stores are becoming nothing but fast food hamburger joints. They’re not bad, but they aren’t great.

This idea hit the market like a thunderbolt. It was so new, so convenient, so inspiring, everyone had to check it out. And now that they have, I feel the thrill is gone. Customers have been inundated with stores that look, act and even sound the same. Can someone come up with an original name????

I honestly feel that unless there is a change in the way this business operates, and each store offer the customer something new and different and makes a name for themselves, this industry will disappear as quickly as it appeared.

How is a customer not supposed to have this mentality? I can get the same thing at each store, so I’ll make an appointment sometime tomorrow.

And tomorrow never comes…

Much Ado About Nothing

This comment from the Franchise Pundit made me stop and think for a moment.

At the end of the day, are all 3 the meal assembly brands interchangeable in the eyes of the customer? Our readers are astute and will see through PR puff, so if there isn’t a compelling differentiators that is fine, just say so.,194.0.html

How are meal assembly franchises different? With so many popping up on an almost daily basis you would expect an almost infinite variety, catering to every need and niche out there. With so many unique owners, so many different points of view, and influences from coast, our choices in what we serve for dinner should be an endless variety where we could go to a different store every month and have meals we’ve never experienced before. It should be like a culinary explosion going across the nation.

But is that what we really have?

Most stores use the same alliteration and have catchy names that have something to do with dinner, or supper or meals. Or they use clever word play involving thyme, dishes or plates.

But names aside, how do they differ and what makes them special?

The basic premise is to save time and money by purchasing and making meals on the bulk principal. Most stores offer the big money saving plan of preparing 12 meals for a reasonable cost. You can also spend more and get less by buying 6 meals, perhaps even 3 and in some cases, just the single meal for the night.

Each offers a menu of 12-14 recipes which you put together. And the basic idea is to move from station to station using bags and pans as needed to put the meal together. Sometimes you move to the food, sometimes the food comes to you, but the idea is the same.

From all the menus I’ve seen they offer choices that compliment and emulate each other. You can plan on chicken, beef, pork, fish and pasta. In some cases deserts are offered, specialty sandwiches, breakfast/brunch items and some side items like rice, pasta, bread/rolls and other items that compliment the meals. With each store offering different recipes you get a variety to be sure, but at the heart, the core ingredients and spices remain the same. Different combinations, but not quite the exotic niche filled market that so many stores could afford.

Most stores adorn their commercial insides with homey décor and the ever popular, red and yellow walls. Call it burgundy and goldenrod, or whatever patented name you like, it’s still yellow and red to me. Sure, there is variation, but not the individuality you would expect.

To compliment their social atmosphere, almost all stores provide some sort of party you can attend. Reserve a session and just you and your friends can have the place all to yourselves. Make meals, have some wine, talk about the days events. So many things accomplished in such a small amount of time.

Another main goal was to save time. Prepare 12 meals and you’re done for the month. When you “get caught unaware” you still have a home cooked meal ready to go. As you may have guessed, fast wasn’t fast enough and people no longer have time to even make their 12 or 6 meals anymore. This lead most stores to offer the option of assembling meals for you sometimes for a small fee, sometime just out of good neighborly love. (Not to mention they don’t want you to cancel the order and go somewhere else).

A large claim of difference is the quality of food. Our food is fresher! We have better ingredients! An excellent way to separate yourself, but are these true claims? Most meal assembly stores, restaurants and grocery stores are serviced by Sysco. Are they saying the Sysco quality is poor? That their food selection and quality isn’t on par with what they can purchase themselves? If you’re not going through Sysco, then does Food Services of America (FSA) or US Foods not have the quality ingredients you need? It would seem you’re getting food from one of them. And if you’re not getting it directly, whoever you buy from more than likely is. Sams, Costco, BJs, etc are all working with the same vendors the rest of us are.

Let’s continue with the “fresher” moniker for a moment. Does buying it from the grocery store next door or down the street mean its fresher? Sysco and FSA deliver there too. “We use a growers market” I hear being shouted from the back row. A wonderful way to support local growers, and indeed you can get fresh vegetables to enhance the meals. But can you rely on this to serve up 50 meals a day for a week? Do they actually have enough to support a busy franchise? If you only have a few sessions a week and can get enough from this supplier that’s great, but what about the meat, fish, chicken and pork? That’s not from the growers market.

So maybe a store can claim freshness of vegetables (in some rare cases), but the meat is going to be frozen (or at least it should be!).

Customer service is indeed the backbone of any store or business. But this has nothing to do with the franchise and everything to do with who you’re lucky enough to hire. Are you lucky enough to hire culinary students who want to make food their life’s pursuit? Are you able to get wait staff who know how to work quickly and efficiently and keep everything tidy? Customer service will make or break a company, but it has nothing to do with the franchise.

Convenience might have a played a key role in choosing one location over another. If one store was busy, head over to another one. But with multiple stores of each franchise locating in the same area I don’t see this as a factor anymore if it ever was. The idea of a full session should be non-existent. If there were sold out sessions, that’s surely the reasons you have so many additional franchises in an area. And from the session calendars I’ve seen, there is plenty of room at the inn.

Does it all come down to the recipes? Is this the dividing line? Of course every store says their meals are better. They have a Chef at the helm creating menus just for you. Their recipes are owner tested, customer approved. The recipes they use have been tested, refined, tested again, perfected and made as flavorful and simple as possible. Many have exotic and titillating names that speak of exotic spices, flavorful marinades, a unique blend that will make every dinner special and memorable. There are claims of everyone wanting seconds and meals that will even bring the kids to the table.

I’m not disputing the claims, I’m just saying, everyone makes the same claim. Is this really The world’s greatest cup of coffee?

So where does all this leave us? Meal assembly stores have catchy, gimmicky names to try and help us remember who they are. They provide the hope of making meals quickly and easily and will even make the meals for us when we simply can’t make the effort ourselves. They look the same, act the same, they even decorate the same. Book a session, pick your meals, come on in.

As stated, at the end of the day, what makes one meal assembly franchise different from another? Is there really any difference to the consumer?

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